In my opinion the report I heard from my bishop, Dan Gilbert, at the Northern Illinois District (NID) South Region Pastors Conference, suggests early on that synod president Matt Harrison is having a “confessional effect” on the LCMS.
Before getting into details let me make it clear that President Gilbert is his own man. He is a nice person who has always been available to me through my years in the district. He has also been very respectful of the Northern Illinois Confessional Lutherans and the concerns they have expressed in the district. But he is still his own man and there are still some major differences in how he and I would approach “doing” church. Nonetheless, I did notice in his report some evidence that already there is a new spirit in the LCMS.
The NID is historically a “liberal district.” I don’t wish to use over-simplify and use harmful caricatures when speaking of the synod but overall I think most clergy and many laymen have an unwritten scorecard on the theological bent of districts and on that scorecard, the NID is historically liberal, at least for the last generation. I have heard many pastors in the NID “brag” that the progressive nature of the parishes in the city of Chicago and its suburbs gives this liberal bent to the entire district. Under Gilbert this liberal bent is more a matter of church growth theology than old-fashioned hard-line liberalism but it is in my book still liberalism.
President Gilbert still considers evangelism to be the material principal of the church, even though he would not word it that way. It continues to be the organizing principle of his district reports. But, I don’t care to dwell in this article on what separates us. (I will however offer my standard critique of the over-emphasis on evangelism – I challenge every reader to search the New Testament. If you can find three or more calls for personal evangelism, I will buy you a Book of Concord. You won’t find them. They do not exist. One would think that if personal evangelism is the material principal of church structure that this would be a prominent New Testament theme.)
Here are some highlights of President Gilbert’s report that suggest a new spirit in the synod.
- Gilbert highlighted Harrison’s new tripartite theme for the synod of “Witness, Mercy, Life-together.” He even quoted the Greek for each of the three terms.
- When speaking about a fellow NID pastor who recently committed suicide, President Gilbert encouraged us to seek out brother pastors for support and promoted the Doxology program as a means to do that. He did then also mention PLI in passing but clearly the emphasis was on the Doxology program, a pastors retreat that makes use of the traditional liturgy among other confessional resources.
- He spoke to us about our preaching. This in itself is a refreshing change. I have been a pastor for 23 years and this is the first time a DP offered direction and guidance for preaching and here was his advice. “Preach the cross! Preach Christ crucified.” He also quoted the Apology in support of this encouragement.
- President Gilbert spoke positively about President Harrison on a few other miscellaneous matters as well.
- Gilbert also reported that Harrison is using a soft hand in leading the synod. I believe his words were “He’s not angry.” I think this reflects a bias of the liberals in our synod that Harrison was somehow going to be mean-spirited but even so, I am happy that my bishop believes that President Harrison is being even-handed and that he took the time to relate this to the district pastors.
- Gilbert also related some direction that he said came straight from synod and the council of presidents. He told us that when we do the baptismal rite and the words of institution that we need to be careful to follow the words printed out in the liturgy. He gave a few examples of how pastors play fast and loose with these phrases from Christ, inspired by the Holy Spirit in Scripture and was very stern in telling us to stop being creative in this matter.
Thank you President Gilbert for a fine report and for illustrating what I discerned to be hints at how President Harrison will have, and is already having a confessional effect on the LCMS.